Presence and Letting Go: David Callejo Perez

When I call David Callejo Perez, he answers and I see that he is in his car driving. I notice he has grown a beard, which is novel for him, and I see the trees, light posts, and other cars move into and out of the window behind him. Like so many of us in academia, he is quite a busy man, often on the move from one thing to the next.

We’ve known each other for quite a while so we exchange pleasantries before asking about one another’s families. Dave gives his updates, sharing that his kids are doing well and that he recently traveled to China. I ask him where he went specifically and in typical Dave fashion, he tells me not only the names of the cities, but several interesting facts about each one that it seems most people wouldn’t know such as, “that’s where the auto industry and film industry is really big.”

While unconfirmed by David, I believe he has a photographic or eidetic memory. He has a remarkable ability to recall both salient and seemingly obscure information on a vast range of topics from memory…and in great detail. I’ve often encouraged him to be a contestant on Jeopardy! and on more than one occasion have remarked that he would be my “phone-a-friend” if I was ever on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

What makes him even more interesting is that while it is clear that he is incredibly intelligent, he can code switch and talk like a guy next door, able to talk sports, movies, or other pop culture entities as easily as he can walk through complex philosophical theories. His mind seems to always be working at a breakneck pace and he can move from one subject to another quickly, much like the car he is driving in while we speak.

While filling me in on where he traveled in China—where at the same time educating me on the uniqueness of each city–Dave quips mid-sentence, “Seriously, who the hell wears a New York Knicks hat and is proud of it?” joking about the stocking cap I am wearing because it’s winter break and I have been in my basement office writing all morning. I knew this was going to be a fun interview.

Knowing he has limited time and is on the way to pick up his daughter, I assure Dave that this will be a short interview, only three questions, before remarking, “This first question is timely because you are in your car. What do you think about when you are driving in your car?

“I usually listen to either podcasts or on XM I listen to the Covers Channel don’t ask me why. So when I’m driving I always think about tomorrow. I think about tomorrow oh, what’s going on tomorrow. The second thing I always think about is really silly stuff just to kind of keep myself entertained. Like what would happen for example if all cars drove backward? And I’m trying to figure out why cars would drive backwards, why do we drive on the right side of the road? It’s a free-thinking exercise. It makes you just basically check out of life for a while because you hardly ever do, you’re always involved in stuff. Between family and work and stuff like that, so if you do something silly, it’s great. Like right now I’m passing a sign. I’m just trying to figure out how to rewrite a sign like ‘Go far tomorrow’ to like ‘Go fart tomorrow.’ But the idea is it’s just because you always get in these rides and I’m always thinking about what’s up tomorrow? What do I have to do? But after that you have to check out because if not, you’re life is driving you crazy. Then sometimes I just go back and start to think about something with the family. Just something funny. Like my daughter’s new fun fact with turtles, “Fun fact Dad: Turtles pee from their eyes and breathe from their butts.” The last thing I do is just sing. You ever get in your car and sing like from the top of your lungs? Like Backstreet Boys, like really bad songs? And that’s fun because you have to check out when you’re in your car because you don’t want to get where you are going and your mind is racing 100 miles per hour.”

“It’s like your version of meditation,” I point out.

“Yeah man, be in the now,” he affirms.

As I myself have been on a journey of mindfulness, where being in the present moment is the goal, I ask him, “Do you meditate?”

“Yeah, I do all the breathing exercises, I do mindfulness. I do 15-minute body scans at night, sit cross-legged chilling and just do breathing exercises being in the moment. It chills you out because you are in the moment. And I’m a million miles an hour but it just relaxes you–it makes you focused. Sometimes I wake up at 4:30 in the morning sit cross-legged, I’ll put my iPad on for 15 minutes and just chill out.”

“This is going down a little bit of a different track,” I share, “AATC has a number of graduate students and young professionals and part of the job of an academic is to deal with criticism. How do you go about dealing with criticism? What advice do you have for some of the younger professionals and graduate students in AATC?”

“I think you got to do it like the Beatles: you just got to let it be. I know we treat the profession like it’s an avocation, right? We think about it in terms of my life is tied into this meaning I created with a doctorate and being a college professor and all that stuff, so therefore a criticism about something you did becomes very personal right? Because we’re in this kind of world of critical analysis and self-efficacy – so the idea is that anyone who’s critical of my work is critical of me.  People need to separate that stuff and let it be and realize that we live in a culture that’s been created in higher education where for lack of a better definition of a public intellectual everything is now inward, and therefore the whole notion of standing out is either by doing something or by taking down someone who did something. I think that’s even shifting now to the Twitterverse or Instagram or whatever it is, or even blogging where people create blogs and do this stuff, put out interesting ideas and thoughts, and then people say that’s not really research. So therefore, you’re going to tear it down and everybody starts to question and criticize. For example, Micho Kaku comes to our campus and all these physics professors are saying he’s not a real physicist, and I say, ‘He’s got a PhD in physics, he’s got millions of followers, why isn’t he a real physicist?’ And they’re like, ‘He simplifies physics.’ So I say, ‘Yeah, but he’s getting thousands of people on every campus to think about physics differently so therefore he’s actually adding to the importance of physics.’ But they can’t see that. That’s the irony of all this. You have the same people in teacher education who look at somebody who gets an award or writes something and the only way you can make yourself better is by bring them down? So sometimes you got to be like a duck with water and let it go…like Elsa.”

I laugh at Dave’s reference to the Disney princess character known for her song “Let it Go”, “That’s how you know you’ve got little girls.”

“You can use that as a quote, ‘You’ve got to be like Elsa.’ Be free and let it go. I mean, there are millions of songs, we could do Bob Marley, ‘Liberate yourself from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our mind.’  that’s what it is. You’ve taken your identity and your mind and your identity and your mind have become your job so essentially you can’t disconnect from that. So now you have to listen to NPR, you have to like wine, you have to like Opera and I’m like, ‘Why?’ ‘Well that’s what faculty do.’ No, that’s what you think they’re supposed to do and when I write something because I’ve been told all my life about self-reflection and somebody criticizes it, they’re attacking you personally. That’s the problem.”

“You’re right. That’s really good stuff,” I reply before transitioning to the last question. “This question is a little bit more specific to education. What issues in education are you either writing about or thinking about right now?”

“Right now, I’m really into this policy thing. Right now, I’m embedded into the political impact of policy, the relationship between practitioners, in users, whatever you want, higher education, and lobbyists, political people, and legislators. So tomorrow at noon I’m going to meet with the chair of the Senate for the state of Michigan because we’re pushing back on a bill but it’s the idea of this is a whole segment of people who impact your work that we are so disconnected from in terms of higher education. If you think about it like an assembly line where we’re putting something together, people have different tasks in the assembly line right? People have different tasks in the assembly line and our world is at the end of it. We’re like the user, we’re like the buyer at the end of it and all we do is we know like, ‘I have an iPhone in my hand right now. Oh, I have an iPhone with apps.’ But we have no idea who puts the bolts together, where the iPhone traveled, who’s impacting how the iPhone is made, so essentially we’re disconnected from the production process. The idea is how do you then engage in that production process, at what point do you engage, and what part is more important than not? It’s a very systems-based analysis of the policies and practices that impact the job you do. It’s like, to quote Bill Parcells, ‘If you want me to make dinner, you should let me pick the ingredients.’ The reality is we’re making dinner but we don’t realize he’s putting the ingredients into the meal. That’s a big one for me right now.”

Dave has stopped his car is about to get out to go pick up his daughter but before he has to stop he shares, “And then for fun, Steve Fain and I are going to put together a documentary of the Jews of Shanghai. There was a huge Jewish population in Shanghai, during World War II, and it’s a really interesting world. They’ve kind of rebuilt the community in terms of tourist attractions, but we are thinking about doing a documentary or something like that.”

And just like that, we say goodbye as Dave heads off to his next endeavor. While he may look to those on the outside like he is always onto the next thing, I take some solace in knowing he’s actually right in the present moment.

Interviewed by Dr. Bradley Conrad, AATC Executive Council Member